Posts Tagged ‘Call centers’

When was the last time you called a business number, got put on hold and heard dead silence? In all likelihood it was some time ago. So why play music when customers are forced to wait? It’s not like anyone really enjoys hearing pabulum played at the highest fidelity permitted your phone’s speaker so there is a real question here for why firms should go through the effort. Slate has an article that tries to get at this question (Your Call Is Important to Us, Sep 8). If you prefer to listen instead of read, here is an NPR interview with the article’s author.

The first thing to recognize is that playing something for callers placed on hold aimed to solve a practical problem: If all you here is nothing, how do you know that the call is still connected?

But in the spring of 1962, an application appeared in the U.S. Patent Office, humbly titled “Telephone Hold Program System.” “In the course of receiving telephone calls,” it began, a bit grandly, before settling into the problem at hand: What to do about that dead silence the caller endured while calls were transferred, their respective parties chased down? Operators were supposed to check in again on callers who had been waiting; but what if they got busy? “In any event,” the application went on, “listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money.”

So the thought was that using music could improve customer service and operation efficiency. People would be more willing to hang on the line and thus would not need to call back later. Does that actually work? (more…)

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Check out this video of Steve Jobs talking about the origins of the iPad.

The text that appears as Jobs talks is how a computer program developed by a firm called Beyond Verbal is interpreting Jobs’ emotion. That is, the program is judging whether Jobs is feeling fatigue or nostalgia based not on what is saying but how he is saying it.

Kinda nifty, but does it have commercial applications? The claim is yes and it is in call centers.


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American Express runs its call centers differently. No scripts. No high pressure on handle times. Instead, they put a focus on relating to customers and evaluate agents on how the customers they interact with answer the question “Would you recommend this company to a friend?” Fortune has an interview with Jim Bush, American Express’ EVP of world service, who has overseen this change (How can American Express help you?, Apr 19). (Dedicated readers of this blog with long memories might recall that we posted on this about a year and a half ago.)

He makes some interesting points on their philosophy in running customer service — starting with the fact that they view call centers as serving customers, not processing transactions.

The perception of service is that it’s all about problems. Problems are actually a very small percentage of why customers interact with American Express. What we’ve learned is that the power of that interaction gives us an opportunity to expand the perception of the brand in a very positive way.

There’s a tendency to see service as a sunk cost — the customer is reaching out to you. So people say, “It’s a cost. Let’s look to eliminate it.” And over time we can eliminate friction points, which eliminates the need for some customers to interact with us. But the reality is, it’s a very powerful opportunity to build a relationship.


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So which country is a bigger market for off-shored technology services, India of the Philippines? According to Market Watch, the latter is the answer (Philippines lifted by outsourcing boom, Jun 15).

The Philippines’ fast-growing business-process outsourcing industry has turned the Asian nation into a major center for off-shored information tech services. The country recently passed India as the world’s top outsourcing destination, according to a report by the services arm of International Business Machines IBM +1.09% — which has a major presence in the country. …

“Ten years ago, we had maybe about 25,000 people in the industry,” said Jose Mari Mercado, business development director at Convergys in the Philippines, who said that number reached about half a million last year.

“The interest in the Philippines has really grown tremendously in the last five years,” he added.

While business outsourcing is typically associated with call centers, the industry actually covers a range of IT services, including customer relations, human resources, accounting and even more specific functions, such as mortgage processing.

In 2010, the Philippines’ IT and business process outsourcing grew 26% to $8.9 billion, according to the Business Processing Association of the Philippines. Workers and professionals employed by the industry grew by 24%, the industry association said.


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We have had a couple of recent posts about firms trying to get more out of their call centers through psychometric data. The idea is that by classifying both customers and agents along psychometric dimensions, the firm can route callers of a particular characteristic to the type of agent that is most likely to lead to a good outcome (where “good” is presumably defined based on what the firm wants). I have to admit that I am not overly familiar with what psychometric measures they are using and am not sure how well they can measure these with infrequent customer contact. At some level, this starts to sound like whether a libra should date a taurus.

With that background, I found a recent Sloan Management Review article really fascinating (Matchmaking With Math: How Analytics Beats Intuition to Win Customers, Winter 2011). It is an interview with Cameron Hurst, a VP at Assurant Solutions. Assurant Solutions sells credit insurance. You pay them every month and then if you are, say, laid off they help cover your credit card bills. What customers pay ranges from $10 to $80 per month and it is not hard to see that some people may have second thoughts about paying that. What seemed like a good idea six months ago might not seem worth $20 now. Hence, their call center plays a key role in keeping customers. When customers get cold feet, it is up to call center agents to “re-sell” them on the product and retain the business. And that is where “affinity routing”  comes in. They brought in some business analytics experts who already worked in the firm but doing actuarial work and such and asked them to look at the call center.

The first thing that was interesting about their approach was that rather than thinking about the average speed of answering phone calls, or the average “handle time,” or service level metrics, or individual customer experiences or using QA tools to find out what we did right and what we did wrong — all the things we usually consider when looking at customer and representative interaction — they started thinking of it purely from the perspective of, “We’ve got success and we’ve got failure.”

Success and failure are very easy things to establish in our business. You either retained a customer calling in to cancel or you didn’t. If you retained them, you did it by either a cross-sell, up-sell or down-sell.

So this is what they started asking: What was true when we retained a customer? What was true when we lost a customer? What was false when we retained a customer? And what was false when we lost a customer? For example, we learned that certain CSRs generally performed better with customers in higher premium categories while others did not. These are a few of the discoveries we made, but there were more. Putting these many independent variables together into scoring models gave us the basis for our affinity-based routing.


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From Belgium, a creative approach to exacting some revenge on a telecom provider with a disappointing customer service record. Reading the subtitles is pretty amusing. Judging by how much the Belgian in the office next to me laughed, the Flemish is just hilarious.


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Fast Company had an interesting article on the technology being pushed by firm called eLoyalty to improve call center operations (How a Personality Test Designed to Pick Astronauts is Taking the Pain Out of Customer Support, Dec 1). The roots of this approach date to a methodology developed by a clinical psychologist to categorize personality types.

The methodology, called the Process Communication Model, was created in the 1970s by a clinical psychologist named Taibi Kahler. He divided people into six main personality types, each of which has a different communication style and each of which has different stress triggers. If you know the personality type of the person you’re speaking with, Kahler explained, you can modify your own communication style to work more effectively with them, prevent misunderstandings, and avoid inadvertently pushing the other person’s buttons.

Apparently, this approach has been used by NASA to determine who’s got the right stuff to for space missions. But how does this apply to call centers?

In call centers, eLoyalty’s system uses the PCM framework to compile a personality profile of each caller from the moment they first contact the center. The system, which is automated, analyzes the caller’s language patterns and other behavioral cues to identify their personality type. (A team of 250 linguists, behavioral scientists, and statisticians have compiled a massive set of linguistic libraries and behavioral algorithms to parse callers’ every word and mode of expression.)

Each time the customer calls back, the system uses the existing profile to steer them to a customer service representative who’s the best match for their personality type, and it continues to analyze their subsequent conversations to deepen and enrich their profile.

eLoyalty, which has clients in the banking, health care, and insurance industries, among others, is the only organization in the call center industry licensed to use PCM. Typical call center quality assurance programs train reps in specific issues and rely on supervisors listening in to a small percentage of calls, and providing coaching to individual reps. The automated eLoyalty system not only allows a larger proportion of calls to be analyzed, but it moves coaching out of the realm of intuition and grounds it in evidence about how to communicate effectively.


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